What Will the 'Great Return' Mean for Offices? | ANA

What Will the 'Great Return' Mean for Offices?

To retain employees and lure new talent, leaders may need to rethink how and where work gets done

Federico Gastaldi/theispot.com

COVID-19 hasn't gone away and is probably here to stay. But things are getting better, and the business world is poised to enter a new phase of dealing with the pandemic. "The Great Resignation" has sucked up a lot of the media oxygen for the past two years as workers left their jobs in droves amid the pandemic. But now marketers need to brace for what could be pegged "The Great Return."

The signs that employees might soon return to a more familiar style of work are plentiful. Cases of the Omicron variant are declining nationwide, mask mandates are being dropped in a number of states, and, despite a tumultuous turn in the stock market in response to the situation in Ukraine, the overall economy has been improving. Ad Age reported U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that employment in advertising, public relations, and related services rose by 2,300 jobs in December 2021.

What's more, the rate of people leaving their jobs slowed in October while the level of job openings accelerated to just below its all-time high.

The fluctuation is against the backdrop of a strengthening economy, with U.S. financial markets outperforming the world, the U.S. jobless rate plummeting to 4.2 percent, and GDP expected to expand 5.6 percent this year, according to Bloomberg.

To be sure, the pandemic's lingering effects will impact how and when employees return to work, according to observers. They say some aspects will be affected more than others but agree on several key issues that will command more attention from marketers as people head back to the office and full-time jobs.

New Talent Pool

Hiring and retaining top talent is not a new problem for the marketing and advertising industries. It was a growing challenge long before the pandemic but has now taken on new urgency in what's shaping up to be a much different work environment.

"We are never returning to pre-COVID, December 2019; and marketers who believe we are will suffer."
— Simon Fenwick, EVP of talent, equity, and learning solutions at the 4A's

"Marketers should be focused on hiring rock-solid talent, individuals with seasoned experience, creativity, and an unbridled passion for trying new things," says Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer and president of health care at ANA member Mastercard. "More than ever, marketers should focus on finding talent with the understanding and know-how to navigate our emerging and complex industry."

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and expanded skill sets will also play a key role when assessing new talent.

"Marketing must reflect our society and consumers; therefore companies must nurture and embrace diversity at all levels," says Lisa Mann, managing director and CMO at Raines International, an executive search and talent advisory firm. "To retain this diverse workforce, companies must equally attract and retain the talent and leadership needed to drive equity and inclusion throughout the organization."

Mann stresses that companies will also need to market their own brands to attract prospective employees. "That includes their product portfolio, their mission, vision and values, brand stories, ambition for sustainability, and also their culture," she says. "Prospective team members want more than a paycheck. They want to feel aligned with companies on a much deeper level."

Hiring people with new skill sets will also help marketers get ahead of the challenges presented by the Great Return, according to Kate MacNevin, global chairwoman and CEO of MRM, a marketing agency within the McCann Worldgroup network.

"The pandemic in many ways has given us a unique opening to expand our approach to hiring as marketers in an exciting way," MacNevin says. "As we have seen evidenced in the Great Resignation, people are rethinking their careers [and] priorities and are open to new things in a way we have not seen before. This provides a tremendous opportunity to recruit talent from other industries, with different experiences, from different backgrounds and perspectives that, in turn, provides marketers a unique opportunity to offer fresh perspectives."

Eileen Benwitt, chief talent officer at ANA member Horizon Media, adds: "Employees, both entry level and experienced — with greater emotional intelligence, self-awareness, critical thinking, and diversity, in every sense — are going to be highly sought when selecting talent. In doing so, the 'team and corporate' construct is going to be challenged."

Flexibility As the 'New Currency'

To attract and retain talent in a world emerging from a global pandemic marketers will have to be more flexible compared to the era before COVID-19.

"It's an empowered economy and talent is bolder than ever before, overtly asking for sign-on bonuses, for example," Benwitt says. "Flexibility is the new currency, meaning talent now knows that working remotely is highly achievable so geography has expanded well beyond commutable distances to or from the office. This includes an increased request to work from anywhere in the world."

Simon Fenwick, EVP of talent, equity, and learning solutions at the 4A's, agrees. "We are never returning to pre-COVID, December 2019, and marketers who believe we are will suffer," he says.

"Marketers who don't offer flexibility will continue to see employee turnover. … The pandemic was key in having a reprioritization in family life, work-life balance, mental health, and more. The impact was powerful and permanent."
— Lisa Colantuono, president of AAR Partners

Greg Paull, co-founder and principal at global marketing agency and ANA member R3, says the pandemic has demonstrated the benefits of working remotely and that most people can get their work done without someone looking over their shoulder.

"Each company will need to decide what their most important performance indicators are and ensure that the flexibility and incentives they offer don't negatively impact those goals," he says. "What does 'flexibility' mean? Is it three days a week in the office? Is it nonfixed work hours? What are companies incentivizing staff for? Top talent who are a good fit with the company will stay if they feel working for the brand is in their best interest."

Lisa Colantuono, president of agency search consultancy AAR Partners, warns that employers ignore flexibility at their own risk.

"Marketers who don't offer flexibility will continue to see employee turnover," she says. "Geographic radius must expand as well as working hours. The pandemic was key in having a reprioritization in family life, work-life balance, mental health, and more. The impact was powerful and permanent."

In the spirit of flexibility, Rajamannar says Mastercard has developed a handful of new policies and programs to create more balance for employees. These policies include formalizing the company's hybrid working arrangement, instituting "meeting-free days," and extending "Summer Fridays" (or half-days) for the full calendar year.

Work As a Social Space

Industry executives say that CMOs and marketers should also prepare for people to look at their jobs through an alternative lens, what with employees working from home and not going into the office nearly as often as they once did.

"People will come to work to socialize," Paull says. "Time in the office will be programmed for sharing ideas, discussing strategies and challenges, one-on-one time with peers and leaders, and participating in culture-building activities."

Colantuono expects dramatic changes in the physical office writ large. "The sea of cubicles will sink," she says, adding that employers will start to offer new amenities such as bike rooms and food halls. "We'll see more outdoor spaces, private terraces, shared rooftops, outdoor courtyards, and proximity to parks."

Horizon Media's Benwitt says the entire concept of working in an office will evolve and change.

"As most organizations will be converting to a hybrid model, the space as it was once valued will require new currency," she says. "There is no longer a need to work 'privately' in the office if you can do 'individual' work remotely. Employees will seek a different experience in-office, something that isn't achievable remotely. Space will need to be reengineered to be even more collaborative, social, and serendipitous."



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